Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain & the Making of the Modern World by Iain McGilchrist



Growing up in America as a member of the Baby Boom generation, I know that I’ve lived in the best place and the best time in the history of the world—or at least very close to it. Canada, some European countries, Australia, and later Japan can lay some claims to being the best places ever, but suffice it to say that I’ve been lucky. Yet, despite all the material comfort and security that my country and culture have allowed me, there’s still a sense that things aren’t as they should be. The twentieth century is full of contradictions: untold wealth and material prosperity with horrific wars, deep economic depressions, the threat of nuclear annihilation , and a culture that sometimes seems alien to human concerns and that degrades the natural environment. Thus, despite my good fortune, I’ve been sympathetic to critiques of our culture. My introduction to such a critique came from Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969), which I was assigned to read in my freshman year in college for my course “Introduction to Political Theory”. From that introduction, I went on to read the likes of Hannah Arendt, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Phillip Rieff, the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, William Irwin Thompson, Wendell Berry, and others. I’ve found resonance with critiques of contemporary Western culture (which has been adopted in many essentials by a large part of Asia as well). I hasten to add that I’m well acquainted and sympathetic to the champions of our contemporary world, too, and as this is also “the best of times”. I appreciate the positive perspective as well.

I mention all this because now I have now encountered a new diagnosis and critique of many of the problems of Western culture that strikes me as uniquely insightful and truly ingenious.

College literature professor turned psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, has written a two-part book about the anatomical split in our brains and how that split in functions affects how we perceive the world and creates our culture. According to McGilchrist, we can consider our culture from the perspective of the different functions of the two different hemispheres of the brain.(For some further background, see my earlier post about McGilchrist’s RSA Animate presentation and the book he wrote as a follow-up to this masterwork under review here.) In the first part of the book, McGilchrist focuses on anatomical and functional details of the brain, with the well-known but often misunderstood division of the left and right hemispheres. The split is not, as first thought, a neat division of language and logic on the left versus vision, music, and feeling on the right. Functions for each of these skills draw on both sides of the brain. However, the brain is divided and is different on each side. In fact, it doesn’t even sit symmetrically within the cranium: it’s torqued (Yanklovian torque) as if twisted it slightly from the bottom so that the right front is slightly larger than its left counterpart, and the left posterior just a bit larger than its right counterpart. This anatomical anomaly, in addition to the fact that the two sides are joined by a bridge, the corpus collosum, that serves as the gatekeeper of the traffic between the two halves, gives some clue to the division of functions within the brain. The gatekeeper often performs its most important work when it inhibits traffic between the two halves. Why? Because each half has its own outlook or way of perceiving the world.

McGilchrist spends much of the book examining the two different ways each side of the brain perceives the world: the right deals with living, dynamic, unique, and context-dependent portions of the environment. The left side deals with (and creates) the static, still, and minutely focused parts of our attention. Each side has evolved to deal with two different needs. The two sides of the brain cooperate, but they their perspectives are largely separate. Thus, language involves both sides of the brain, but the left side, with its emphasis on static and detailed information dominates in vocabulary and syntax issues. Thus, while an impulse toward speech may originate in the right brain, those impulses must pass to the left side to obtain full expression. Here is where stroke victims and the subjects of split-brain surgeries (severing the corpus collosum to alleviate epileptic seizures) provide amazing clues about the differing functions of the two hemispheres. McGilchrist wades through this research to deepen our understanding and appreciation of these issues.

But if the book was only a catalog of “our amazing divided brain!” it would prove interesting but not profound. The profundity and deep value of the book comes from McGilchrist’s ability to trace the effects of this division of the brain into daily life, especially into a portrait of its effect on the formal culture of the West. (He doesn’t address Eastern culture, begging off for a lack of acquaintance.) McGilchrist’s knowledge of Western culture, especially literary and philosophical culture, is impressive. McGilchrist argues that Western culture since the Enlightenment, and especially after the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, has been dominated by a left-brain perspective. It has focused on the static, the manufactured (i.e., not living, not organic), that which we can manipulate and control, and that which pays easily identifiable dividends. The left-side also prefers the literal to the metaphoric and the artificial to the natural. McGilchrist finds this especially true in the 2oth century when examining contemporary literature and philosophy as well as the broader cultural milieu.

McGilchrist finds times in Western cultural history when attitudes, beliefs, and practices, reflecting the two differing perspectives and functions of the brain, were balanced, such as Periclean Athens and the Renaissance. Problems arose early, on the other hand, when the pre-Socratics, such as Heraclitus, with his emphasis on flux and change, were shunted aside by Plato and Aristotle, who preferred the static and “reason” as the ideal. Indeed, from Plato through Kant Western philosophy emphasized the left-hemisphere perspective (with some exception for Spinoza: “Spinoza was one of the few philosophers, apart from Pascal, between Plato and Hegel to have a strong sense of the right-hemisphere world.” McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 3804-3805). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.). In the wider culture, religion offered a good deal of counter-balance to the left-sidedness of philosophy. McGilchrist argues that with Hegel, philosophy begins to take a corrective turn. He writes:

Hegel, along with Heraclitus and Heidegger, has a particular place in the unfolding story of the relationship between the cerebral hemispheres, in that, it seems to me, his philosophy actually tries to express the mind's intuition of its own structure – if you like, the mind cognising itself. His spirit is like an unseen presence in this book, and it is necessary to devote a few pages to his heroic attempts to articulate, in relation to the structure of the mind or spirit (Geist), what lies almost beyond articulation, even now that we have knowledge of the structure of the brain.

McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 5477-5481). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


Along with Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, among German-language philosophers, receive extended and sympathetic treatment (demonstrating that McGilchrist willingly suffers through some dense and challenging prose to retrieve nuggets of insight). Also receiving favorable treatment and consideration are lesser known figures like Husserl, Scheler, and Merleau-Ponty: each gives voice and insight into to the function of the right brain. Finally, McGilchrist considers the American pragmatists John Dewey and William James for their useful perspectives on philosophy and the organic nature of reality.

McGilchrist, following Leon Sass, agrees that modern culture displays many of the traits of schizophrenia. Publisher’s Weekly writes of Sass’s book Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought: “Does the schizophrenic's chaotic inner world resemble modern art and literature? Sass, a clinical psychologist and Rutgers professor, argues that schizophrenia and modernism display striking affinities: fragmentation, defiance of authority, multiple viewpoints, self-referentiality and rejection of the external world in favor of an omnipotent self or, alternately, a total loss of self. While the parallels he draws often seem superficial, there is much to ponder in Sass's notion that schizophrenia's core traits are exaggerations of tendencies fostered by our culture.” As this quote suggests, McGilchrist, following Sass, finds striking resemblances that McGilchrist identifies as a manifestation of a left-brain perspective run awry. Identifying and counter-acting this trend is a defining part of McGilchrist’s project. He writes:


My choice of the Nietzschean fable of the Master and his emissary suggests that right at the heart of the relationship between the hemispheres I see a power struggle between two unequal entities, and moreover one in which the inferior, dependent party (the left hemisphere) starts to see itself as of primary importance.

McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 5481-5483). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


Is all of this worth the effort? I think so. It’s a very valid and live issue, I believe. How we view our world, what perspectives we take, will change the course of our actions. If we do in fact give predominance to the left-brain perspective, we will reap consequences that will likely back-fire upon us. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we have loosed its magic on the world, but there are grounds to believe that we have lost control. We need the Master, the living world of the right-brain, to come to the rescue.   

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Unknown Known: What You Didn't Know You Didn't Know: A Film by Errol Morris



“My goodness, what should we think of such a film?” I can hear Donald Rumsfeld saying it now. His good-natured, awe-shucks language serves as a veneer on this most ambitious and arrogant man. 

For those of you who may have forgotten, Donald Rumsfeld served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush. On the filming and questioning end, we have the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, whose documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara is among my favorite films. Indeed, I savored the anticipation of comparing the McNamara experience with Rumsfeld’s, but the comparison fell flat.

Someone likened McNamara to the Flying Dutchman, sailing from port to port in search of redemption. In The Fog of War, we see McNamara trying to come to terms with the tragedy of Vietnam, the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, the harrowing experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the loss of innocence (if that’s the right term) caused by the assassination of JFK. He came across as genuine and conflicted—not an evil man. He believed in his calling, and he remained loyal to the memory of the two presidents under whom he served. McNamara did only one stint in government: Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson (excluding military service in WWII for the Army Air Corps under Curtis LeMay) .

Rumsfeld doesn’t generate sympathy; he generates perplexity. His smile and charm are like the smile of the Cheshire Cat: he hides behind it. Morris lets us know that when Rumsfeld took the helm at the Pentagon for the second time (he held the job under Gerald Ford as well) he had the reputation of a consummate Washington player. One gets the sense from his resume and from keeping pals like Dick Cheney that he never went into anything naively.

We learn in the film that Rumsfeld is a memo-maker, writing notes to himself and others incessantly. “Snowflakes”, he (or someone) came to call them. He thinks on paper, or at least seems to think. But here's the enigma: the man who tried to reason out his votes as a young congressman appears immune to real reflection—at least by the time that he’s serving in the Bush Administration. One takes away from the film no admission of misjudgment or mistake and only a cursory admission of uncertainty about the whole Iraq War undertaking.
 
I’ve read recently about human reasoning as a vehicle for persuasion rather than a process for reaching truth. Sperber and Mercier have proposed the Argumentative Theory of Reason that claims that humans developed reasoning skills to persuade others. (Their paper here and summaries here & here.)  In a group with open discussion and the ability to examine and criticize others, reasoning can work well. However, when we attempt to reason on our own, our reasoning goes astray under the influence of the confirmation bias and other self-interested motives. Iain McGilchrist in his RSA Animate short and in his book The Master and His Emissary makes a related point about the brain. McGilchrist argues that the right brain, which perceives experience in context and dynamically, is undercut by the static, abstract, and tightly focused left-brain that is dominant (but not exclusive) in the production of language. McGilchrist writes: 


Sequential analytic ‘processing’ also makes the left hemisphere the hemisphere par excellence of sequential discourse, and that gives it the most extraordinary advantage in being heard. It is like being the Berlusconi of the brain, a political heavyweight who has control of the media. Speech is possible from the right hemisphere, but it is usually very limited. We have seen that thought probably originates in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere has most syntax and most of the lexicon, which makes it very much the controller of the ‘word’ in general. Coupled with its preference for classification, analysis and sequential thinking, this makes it very powerful in constructing an argument.

McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 6099-6104). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


I mention this because watching this film seems to lend so much support to this perspective. In appearance and in language (oral and written), Rumsfeld comes across as the consummate thinker and reflector, but in reality, it’s all so much bull shit. He makes no connection between the realities in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Guantanamo and his words. In print and briefly in the film, Morris notes that Rumsfeld was very taken with the issue of Pearl Harbor and how the Japanese were able to attack U.S. bases when the U.S. knew that an attack was likely. (In articles appearing in the New York Times, Morris further discusses Rumsfeld’s interest in the work of Roberta Wohlstetter and Thomas Schelling about Pearl Harbor.) In fact, we learn that in July 2001 Rumsfeld wrote a memo about how such an event might occur again and (presumably) how to avoid it. But he makes no substantive connection with the events of 9/11. This happened on his watch. One plane crashed into his Pentagon. All words, no connections.

The film takes its title from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous utterances. You must watch to the end of the film to unpack what he said and then attempt to figure out what he means. In the end, it just seems to have been words, words, words.

At the conclusion of The Fog of War I felt sympathy for McNamara and I said to friends at the theatre, “they should send this to the Bush Administration”. I don’t think anyone in the Bush Administration watched that film before heading off into the war in Iraq. Alas, at the end of The Unknown Known, I can't feel sympathy for Rumsfeld. I feel sorry for us. I think we got suckered.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Risk Agent by Ridley Pearson



Several years ago at the Iowa City Book Festival, I heard Ridley Pearson speak in the Old Capital. Like many a writer, he started off in another calling, but he couldn’t resist attempting a book. He eventually received recognition (sales), and he's made a career of it. He related that, among other things, he participated in a rock bank (“The Rock Bottom Remainders”) with Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Dave Barry (along with others). But mostly Pearson talked about writing and his book, The Risk Agent. The Risk Agent arose out of a teaching stint in creative writing he did at a college in Shanghai. He reported that you could learn a lot about life in China from the essays of 20 year-olds. 

The Risk Agent centers of two characters, one is a brash, use-your-fists American with a wary eye and a soft heart. He’s brought to China to try to resolve a kidnapping, and his employers match him with a young, American-educated Chinese woman who’s trained as a forensic accountant. The plot gets thick with the Chinese police (local and state security), an American corporation doing business—perhaps some shady business—in China, a rival Chinese corporation, and lots of thugs. The setting is in and around Shanghai. Pearson weaves in many local landmarks and brings in as much local and Chinese culture as he can. For instance, we learn that there’s a Shanghainese language besides the standard Mandarin. (Our American hero, of course, speaks both.)

Pearson’s book is a romp. The plotting is extensive and takes the two protagonists to the tops of Shanghai’s mushrooming glass-box high-rises, into back alleys, and then concludes with a brief trip into the countryside. There’s lots of movement and action here. The characters are tolerably rounded, and we can easily tell the good guys (and gals) from the bad guys. Thus, if you’d like a view contemporary Shanghai and environs with a prototypical American and classy Chinese woman who can throw a punch and remain inscrutable, you can enjoy this book. I listened to it via Audible. I thought it went on too long. The dénouement could have come sooner for me. But if you’re looking for a romp through contemporary China, join the ride.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall



Readers of this blog will know that I’ve become quite a fan of Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri books. They satisfy on a couple of levels. They are neat little mysteries. One blurb calls Puri “the Indian Hercule Poirot”, while others compare him to Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series set in Botswana. Fun plotting (and sub-plotting), along with insights into Indian culture, make the books work. In fact, it’s this later point about the insight into Indian culture that make the books so fun for me. Hall is an outsider who’s peaked behind the curtain or at least one who’s bothered to look. His comments on roadways and traffic, unique Indian phrases, Indian snacks, arranged marriages, exams—I could go on, but you get a catalogue of life here. For someone still trying to figure things out, observations that confirm my own thinking or that elucidate the strange are most welcome, especially when shared in such a fun format. 

This book in the series deals with arranged marriages, “love marriages” (not arranged), caste, and political corruption—issues that remain at the very heart of Indian society today. Vish Puri, long-time husband in an arranged marriage, isn’t convinced that the trend from arranged marriages to love marriages is necessarily a good one (nor am I entirely), but he nevertheless gets involved with an effort to the thwart an arranged marriage goes awry. Having gone down the rabbit hole, Puri finds himself dealing with the Dalits (once known as “Untouchables”), the lowest rung on the caste rung, which isn’t supposed to exist, but does persist still in varies guises. Throw in genetic testing and a large scientific research enterprise—well, you should have the picture by now. 

Vish Puri has once again not only cracked the case, but he’s cracked many a smile on my face. Informative, fun, and insightful, this book is a great read for understanding India while following the intrigues of the ace detective (and his mother!).